Ep 219: Mental Health Professionals: Why So Liberal?

Surveys find that psychologists tend to align themselves with a liberal political orientation. Why is that? Are liberal-minded people drawn to human service professions or is there something about working in human services that causes people to become more liberal in their political views? In this episode I propose a few ideas that I think explains why mental health professionals tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum. I invite your constructive feedback on these suggestions.

Resources on Psychology and Politics

Polarized Psychology: Is Science Devalued in a Divided Society?

90.6 percent of social and personality psychologists describe themselves as liberal on social issues (compared with 3.9 percent who describe themselves as conservative), and 63.2 percent describe themselves as liberal on economic issues (compared with 10.3 percent who describe themselves as conservative). Overall, they found a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 14:1. – Polarized Psycholgy

Suggestions as to Why Mental Health Workers Tend to Have a Liberal Political Orientation

  • Mental health workers spend their days in direct contact with people who, because of their mental/emotional/situational challenges, are simply not able to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. They need assistance, often in the form of social programs, to be able to do this.
  • Social programs often require government assistance, which often means increased taxes. Conservatives are typically in favor of lowering taxes and less government intervention.
  • The branch of psychology called Social Psychology focuses on external causes of behavior. Studies such as those by Stanley Milgram, Solomon Asch, Henri Tajfel, and Philip Zimbardo demonstrate that our behavior, thoughts and feelings are often strongly influenced by our surroundings. Conservatives tend to focus on the individual.
  • Another large branch of psychology – Behaviorism – also focuses on the influence of reinforcers in our environment and how they can make us behave, think and feel. Thus, to change people (from this perspective) requires changes in the environment (e.g., social programs).

I mentioned the “Filter Bubble” in this episode – the fact that the information we are exposed to from TV and from the web is often tailored only toward what organizations (particularly those that want to sell you something) think you would agree with. Thus, it is very hard to get an accurate picture of what is really happening in the world.

The Filter Bubble

Comments

  1. says

    I think these are sound suggestions for why there seem to be more psychology professionals with a liberal slant than with a conservative one.
    I've studied to the Master's level in psychology and I identify as a conservative. My personal interest in psychology is understanding human behavior. Duh, right? People are just fascinating to study with so many different influences on why we think what we think and do what we do. We are simulatneously predictable and unpredictable. It is truly amazing. I don't know what that has to do with this topic, but that's my perspective as a conservative who studied psychology.
    I was wondering while listening to the episode if there isn't a "chicken and the egg" scenario. Which came first, the psychology career or the liberalism? I expect there are cases of each.
    I would like to say something from the conservative perspective to perhaps expound on what Michael said. I wouldn't base conservatism on my opinion, but I do align with the basic conservative perspective, so maybe it is similar to other conservative opinions. I think conservatives do focus on individual responsibility which includes family responsibility. Smaller government is viewed as ideal because it allows for the most personal freedom, including personal responsibility. Where individuals have shortcomings or weakness, their family would make up the difference, not a government run social program. Of course, in the U.S. today (not sure about the rest of the world) society is widening the gap between families and individual responsibility.
    This might not be well received, but I'm going to say it anyway in the interest of expressing both sides of the discussion, I think there is a tendency on the liberal side of the spectrum, or what is currently passing as the liberal side, to exercise control over others. Conservatives want control over their own lives and their families, liberals want to control others. This is manifest in the "big government" programs and spending. I think this is why there seems to be a similar liberal slant among academics. There is a spirit of "I know better than you do, so do what I suggest." Whereas conservatives, true conservatives, not GOP republican progressive types trying to win votes, are of the mindset that each person will rise or fall depending on their effort and merit, all the while maintaining the attitude of being our brothers' keeper. Like I said, true conservatives, which is why it's dangerous to use these general terms like liberal and conservative, as Michael alluded to in the episode. We know people are simliar, but also very different, certainly more different than can be summed up in two "opposing" patterns of belief.
    So that's my thought on the topic, as controversial as it might be, liberals are more inclined to want to control others and conservatives are more inclined to take personal accountability and control themselves.
    Thanks!

  2. Michael says

    Thanks for your well considered comment Paul. Some thoughts: I agree when you say that where individuals have shortcomings their family should make up the difference, but I would add that the ability of many families – especially the poor – to make up this difference is often not so good. If you're growing up in poverty and/or violent, drug-infested neighborhoods the family may be missing a father and/or the father and mother may be working two or three low paying but full time jobs. So in the best of circumstances, yes the family should be the support network, but what to do in situations like these?

    Regarding the issue of control: we all want as much control over our own lives as possible, so I'm with you there. Do liberals (although our interest here is in mental health professionals) want to "control" others? That may be too strong a word. Where is the line between control and "help" or "assistance"? That's a tough one and probably something you have to address on a case-by-case basis. We all don't want too many laws so think we have to ask ourselves, "When is a government program to help a certain segment of the population (the mentally ill or those struggling with poverty) too restrictive on the general population?"

    I'll some more thinking on all this and of course I invite your response and those of others as well.

  3. says

    I failed to clarify how the control aspect related to this topic. I think there is an aspect of control built into psychology and counseling. Whether conscious or sub conscious I think a person in this line of work thinks they have an answer that someone else doesn't and they want to give that answer to them. Call it control or call it power. It's just an observation I've made. As you said, control is a tough word in this scenario and where is the line between help and control? I guess what I was getting at is that one reason why mental health professionals might be liberal is because the stereotypical liberal label applies to people who seek to help others by doing things for them that they can't or don't want to do for themselves, often through institutions (ie government). So I'm suggesting maybe that mindset leads that type of person towards a career in counseling.

    Not everyone, of course, but there may be a correlation, at least in the biases I hold. For better or for worse. We all have them, it's only dangerous if we rely on our biases rather than find out the whole story, or as much as we can, before reaching judgment.

    In regards to the other portion of this, families being the first level of support, I think the foundation to the problem is the disintegration of family. As you said, family might be the best answer for people who need help, better than government led, taxpayer funded solutions, but sometimes the family isn't capable. That's the real problem then, families that aren't capable. It's one of those things where there are so many levels of dysfunction that need to be fixed before you can focus on the current issue. A family that can't provide support needs somewhere to go to get that support. Neighbors, community volunteers, churches, these are what I think need to step in way before taxpayer efforts are resorted to. It's easy to say the family needs to handle it, but not realistic, which is unfortunate. I know laws and regulations and government intervention will never get the job done though. See 1984 or any number of dystopian fiction titles. But this is way off the episode topic now.

    I love discussing these sorts of things because it helps me understand the issues. Obviously I don't have the solutions so talking about it helps me make sense of everything.

  4. ralph m says

    Hi Michael,
    I'm a 57 year old, typical blue collar worker within five years of retirement (hopefully), living in Canada, and I discovered the Psych Files recently, and have been listening especially closely to episodes such as this last one which deal with subjects that are part of everyday life….such as 'why is there such a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the beliefs and attitudes between liberals and conservatives?'

    You gave a good summary of the differences in the podcast, but when you got to the quote…which I believe originated from Winston Churchill…which according to my source is:"Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." This quote got me thinking about the conservative/liberal problem, because I feel that the primary difference is our attitudes towards authoritarianism and fear of risk.
    So, according to Winnie's line of thinking, we should expect our youth to be at their most liberal stage in life, because we are the least risk-averse in our teens and early 20's, and the most open to new ideas and new experiences. Whereas, as we age, we become more aware of risk, more apt to follow authority or advice from respected leaders (as we were in early childhood), and develop a greater appreciation for normalcy, routine, and consistency.
    Along this line…you probably already heard this one before, but an interesting brief episode of an NPR show I heard awhile back, mentioned a psychology professional who had been baffled by the constantly changing and often bizarre choices of music his young grad students brought with them, and decided it could be the subject of a scientific analysis. In brief, the research analyzing popular musical tastes of subjects of varying ages, along with interviews with media and music industry professionals revealed that they discovered a near constant trend where music tastes were set and rarely varied after age 25. And, they discovered the very commercially lucrative phenomena that a wave of nostalgia overtakes people 20 years after they first became fans of their favorite bands or singers, and that has been the guiding principle behind the reunion tours and when to add songs to Classic radio formats.

    That provides a basic grounding in why we have a political divide in the first place, but what I feel is missing from the discussion is how liberal or conservative thinkers are impacted by real life issues. For example, an interesting book on the subject that I read several years back, was "The Authoritarians," by University of Manitoba Psychology professor – Robert Altemeyer. Part of Altemeyer's findings in his research on the psychological profiles of leaders and followers in authoritarian movements (which were surprisingly different in many areas), was that the tendency to think liberally or conservatively can be skewed towards authoritarianism during times of crisis – 9/11 was a useful recent example for Altemeyer, of a period of time when even a majority of liberals started siding with conservative policies and arguments. While during times of prosperity that are relatively stress-free, the conservative will be more open and more inclined to change opinions.
    For myself, even though my thinking and approach to life seems to be liberal, I found myself supporting conservative or libertarian ideas during the 80's and 90's – after a superficial analysis of economic trends seemed to indicate that liberal Keynsian economic principles that had guided U.S. and Canadian policies through the 70's, just happened to lead to stagnation, while the Friedmannomics put into practice by Reagan and Thatcher seemed to guide the way forward.
    A lot of the success of Reaganomics just happened to be put in place when more crucial factors, such as a sharp decline in oil prices, were allowing economic expansion….but, I wasn't aware of these factors back then….but, as I increased my own awareness of resource and other underlying factors of economic success, I started re-examining what I thought were core principles. On social issues, the fallout from lower taxes/cuts to domestic spending, 'War on Drugs' and related punitive crime and punishment strategies, along with the general decline of the middle class into the return of the inordinately and undeservedly compensated superwealthy minority, surrounded by a general population on the decline into greater and greater poverty….well, let's just say I became a little disillusioned with the direction of conservative politics in Canada!
    Sometime during the last 10 years also, my growing interest and awareness of a multitude of environmental crises…including global warming…has sent me to the far left of the political scale; because I find myself in agreement with the extreme wing of environmentalists, who believe that our entire system of demand-driven economies fueled by increasing debt, just cannot be made compatible with future survival of the human race! What to do – seems like such a monumental, insurmountable problem today, because…as we can see from the surprisingly aggressive disinformation campaign run mostly by oil interests, reveals that even making modest shifts in energy sources and carbon outputs will be very difficult to achieve….say nothing of any real strategy that targets the very principles behind increased economic expansion and resource extraction!
    So today, after a lifetime as a liberal thinker who tracked to the right in middle age and began moving back, and suddenly to the far left maybe out of desperation for real solutions to environmental problems, I guess I'm proof that the basic psychological profile doesn't exactly tell us where we will end up on the political spectrum once we have examined real life issues.

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